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Ask Slashdot: Are Smart Meters Safe? 684 684

An anonymous reader writes "There is a lot of controversy and a big hullabaloo about Southern California Edison and various other utilities around the country installing smart meters at residential homes. Various action groups claim that these smart meters transmit an unsafe amount of RF and that they are an invasion of privacy. The information out there seems rather spotty and inconsistent — what do you engineers out there think? Are these things potentially harmful? Are they an invasion of privacy?"
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Ask Slashdot: Are Smart Meters Safe?

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  • Shielding (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ktappe (747125) on Tuesday July 03, 2012 @12:18PM (#40529385)
    Serious question: If you wrap your smart meter in tinfoil (or for purposes of this argument) lead, what happens?
  • by eagee (1308589) on Tuesday July 03, 2012 @12:37PM (#40529779)
    So, I used to write server software for one of these companies, and I'd say the biggest concern is the corners they're cutting in order to get a product to market. Having an internet aware electricity grid is a terrible, terrible idea, especially when the leaders of these organizations are businessmen/women that don't understand the underpinnings of technology. It isn't a matter of if hackers will eventually be able to monitor, track, and use this information against customers (e.g. Hitting homes that have significant drops in usage while they're out of town) it's when. Furthermore, several of these meters have a remote IP enabled shutoff - can you image the havoc that could be wreaked when the encryption and authentication software in these meters is outstripped by new technologies? This is all worst case scenario stuff, and it isn't like these companies aren't always doing their due diligence; it's just that I feel social engineering and/or actual hacking makes this seem like an inevitable outcome.
  • Privacy and Safety (Score:4, Interesting)

    by doas777 (1138627) on Tuesday July 03, 2012 @12:40PM (#40529835)

    Though I have no idea regarding the RF tx concerns, I can speak a little about the privacy implications. first a little reading, Here is a link to the NIST-IR 7628, which describes guidelines for smartgrid security. Volume 2 focuses on privacy impact. http://www.egov.vic.gov.au/focus-on-countries/north-and-south-america-and-the-caribbean/united-states/trends-and-issues-united-states/information-and-communications-technology-united-states/cyber-security-united-states/nistir-7628-guidelines-for-smart-grid-cyber-security.html [vic.gov.au]

    it is already possible with analog meters to identify devices inside a home, simply by sampling the signal at the meter at an interval of less than 2 minutes. the faster the sample the more accurate. by comparing the signals to a database of common electrical devices researchers were able to profile device usage as early as 1992. obviously, up till now, most utilities coudn't afford the staff to sample most lines at that interval however.

    The smart grid exacerbates this privacy issue, because it allows and in fact requires high speed sampling to accommodate Time-Of-Use billing, and because the meters can send usage information to the utility head end effortlessly with no additional cost.

    the real issue with privacy however will not come for a few years: smart appliances. Several EDUs are already selling internet service through their smart meters, but there is effectively no option to firewall this connection as it travels over the power lines and any interference would be felony meter tampering.

    So, imagine 5 years from now, you are buying a new TV. you don;t care about internet connectivity, but the device comes with it embedded, and there are very few options in the TVs menus for configuring it. It uses powerline networking, so in order to just turn it on, you have already connected it to the Internet. At this point, you basically have to trust your TV manufacturer to not report to advertisers what you watch, including stuff like pr0n. with SMART devices you have to trust the manufacture implicitly..

    Another big focus for the smartgrid is Electric Vehicles. The plan at present is to have the car identify itself to the power network, along with its owners billing info, so that wherever you plug in to get a recharge, it appears on your monthly bill. this can easily be used to track you over long periods of time.

    SG meter data can also be used to uncover hidden sources of power generation within your property, so if you hide your usage to maintain your privacy, that will likely be accessible to any adversarial party that requests it.

    So, a well monitored smart meter can be used to tell your schedule, the size of your family, when you are home, when you are away, your approximate worth, enumerate your devices, log how/when/where (in your house) you use them, track your internet usage, how far you travel each day (and possibly where you went), the day of the week you go to the grocery, and what ever any device you plug in decides to send to third parties, all with no indication that anything is happening.

  • by pedrop357 (681672) * on Tuesday July 03, 2012 @01:59PM (#40531197)

    Not really. My power company gives me 15 minute snapshots and I've been able to determine all sorts of stuff. That hour long spike there-that's when I was cooking an early dinner.

    That 20 minute spike-THAT's right around the time I heard that noise and went outside to see what it was, leaving the damn door open and causing the AC to kick on.
    Some of that only means something to me.

    BUT, a person looking at my snapshots can EASILY figure out when I get up, when I go to sleep, my days off, etc. My house has a fairly consistent 'idle' when I'm asleep or at work.

    Just look for a 1 hour period of activity following 6-10 hours of idle, which precedes another idle period. You've got about what time I get up and when I leave for the day.
    Look for a few hours or activity following a period of inactivity and you have when I get home. Yes, depending on how similar the periods are, you might have trouble figuring out which is me getting up and ready for work vs which is me getting home. Some more observing might help figure out what the idle period is.
    If you can average my kwh usage, you can get close to figuring out if I'm single or not.

    You can work out when there's guests. Higher power spikes might indicate water heater usage which implies additional laundry or (more likely) shower usage. Now you can start to get closer to figuring out if I'm less single then before.

    Yes, the data ia a bit vague, but that's nothing that can't be cleaned up with more granular info and some better data on appliance usage. Just do some searches of who built my house and you can figure out whether it's likely I have gas or electric appliances.

    The best part is all of this can be mined and viewed right from someone's desk. No need to stalk me to figure all of this out.

    I see huge privacy implications in all of this.

  • by plover (150551) * on Tuesday July 03, 2012 @02:14PM (#40531391) Homepage Journal

    Well, I do grow orchids indoors as a hobby, and have several large grow lamps and fluorescent arrays that draw over 800 watt-hours for 17 hours per day (in the summer, anyway, they need shorter hours of daylight in the winter.) And there's no mistaking the glow emanating from the basement windows.

    I've never had so much as a knock on the door from a city or police official or power company representative asking what I'm growing under all the lights.

  • by psmears (629712) on Tuesday July 03, 2012 @02:22PM (#40531529)

    That link really doesn't demonstrate the answer to the question of "how will they read power consumption down to the device level"?

    No, but this one [cnet.com] does.

    Basically, the meters read (or at t least, can read) the power consumption to a very fine degree of accuracy every 2 seconds. That's enough to figure out what TV channel you're watching (by watching power fluctuations caused by varying brightness levels of the TV). And with that level of detail it would also be fairly easy to make good guesses at: what time you leave for / get home from work (lights/kettle/coffee machine/cooker); when you're in the shower; how many people are in your house; whether you're on holiday... it all starts to get creepy pretty quickly...

  • Re:Radiation hazard? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by cdrguru (88047) on Tuesday July 03, 2012 @03:00PM (#40532009) Homepage

    An important subsection of radiophobes are those that are afraid of EMF radiated from transmission lines. These folks have successfully tied in knots the idea of running transmission lines anywhere near residential areas. They are able to be successful in blocking such construction because they pretty much sit and argue in a reasonable-sounding manner until the utility gives up. High voltage transmission lines have been accused of being responsible for cancer, impotence, warts, and just about every other thing that affects humans, except for government deficit spending.

    Anyone that believes the US will be rewired with a new grid system hasn't run into these people. New transmission lines will not be coming to an area near you. Existing transmission lines will be taken down should any sort of permit be required to update them.

    Last I heard about this was a utility in New York was desperate enough to consider running a new transmission line through a lake so that nobody would see it and it wasn't near anyone's house.

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